Archive for December, 2010


All I Want For Christmas* Is A Smile. No Need To Wrap It. Just Give It To Me. Actually, I’ll Be Delighted To Get It Any Time Of The Year. P.S. I’ll Be At The Airport And At Target This Afternoon. Maybe Taco Bell Too** And I’ll Be Looking For My Gift.

December 23, 2010

Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
• Mother Teresa

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), First Earl of Beaconsfield, British prime minister, and novelist, once groused, “It destroys one’s nerves to be amiable all day.” Goodness knows I understand what the Earl was griping about. It is difficult to be cheerful when you’re tired, grumpy, out of sorts, busy, angry, worried, upset, cranky, hungry, disappointed, sad, impatient, frustrated, irritable, or annoyed.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
• Thich Nhat Hanh

When all of your energy is focused on getting through the day, a smile can seem like frosting on the cake of your presence. Nice, but not necessary. After all, isn’t it enough to give us cake? You’re there. You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re taking money, serving a Happy Meal®, wrapping presents, preparing an eggnog latte, giving us a fistful of stocking-stuffer-singles for a twenty, unlocking the dressing room, dishing up, checking out, waiting on, listening to, and doing it all while wishing you were somewhere else since you’re running out of time to do whatever it is you’d rather be doing. I get it.

Attempt to be cheerful. Who knows, it might work.
• Ann B. Davis (1994), “Alice’s Unspoken Rules,” Alice’s Brady Bunch Cookbook

I get it, but I am disappointed when I don’t get a smile with my service. Perhaps I am expecting too much, but if you’re wondering what you can give someone that doesn’t cost anything except a bit of muscular and emotional effort, give a smile. And to everyone who’s generously distributed smiles this season, including those directed my way, many thanks. I’ve tried to pass them along.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
• Leo Buscaglia

Smiles matter. I am aware that this sounds like the very best of the worst kind of mindless happytalk. It’s a cliché, and there are plenty of people out there with good reason not to smile. I know. But whether I’m in a restaurant or a grocery store or a gas station or an office building—or teaching a class—the attitude of the people I encounter matters.

What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. They are trifles, to be sure; but, scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.
• Joseph Addision

If I’m feeling grumpy myself, a smile reminds me to mind my manners and return it. If I’m disheartened or sad or overwhelmed, a smile reminds me that these feelings will pass and my own smiles will return. If I’m eating a meal, a smile makes the food taste better. If I’m encountering bureaucratic intransigence, a smile increases my patience. If the person in front of me is holding up the line while hunting frantically through purse or pockets or wallet for whatever it is s/he needs to finish checking out, a smile boosts my tolerance. Smiles matter.

There is not a soul who does not have to beg alms of another, either a smile, a handshake, or a fond eye.
• John Dalberg-Acton, (1834-1902), First Lord Acton, author, historian, politician

If you’re wondering what you can give others at any time of the year, give them your smile. Think of it as community service, a volunteer activity you become part of by joining a club with no meetings and no dues whose sole mission is to spread a bit of cheer and good will. Be a grin philanthropist and give freely.

If someone is too tired to give a you a smile, leave one of your own, because no one needs a smile as much as those who have none to give.
• Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

* This season there are many who tentatively wish me a “Merry Christmas,” recognizing that there are those who celebrate other—or even no—festivities. My title, however, references a holiday song written by Don Gardner (1946), “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” a tune that’s been parodied many times, including in the 1960s when Dora Bryan sang “All I Want For Christmas Is The Beatles.” Now, thanks to iTunes, she can have them.

** The return of the bean tostada makes me smile. It was my favorite high school off-campus lunch. Add a bean burrito and I was ready to embarrass myself in the afternoon. I am quite fond of the musical fruit.


Significance And Insignificance, Hope And Despair, Enthusiasm And Burnout, Caring And Cynicism, And Other Realities Of The Teaching Life

December 12, 2010

The most important function of education at any level is to develop the personality of the individual and the significance of his [or her] life to himself [or herself] and to others.
• Grayson Kirk*

Enthusiasm releases the drive to carry you over obstacles and adds significance to all you do.
• Norman Vincent Peale

When I was writing a daily blog last academic year, I seldom worried about whether my words were significant. I had to write something every day and so I did. Now that I have become an occasional poster who continues to wonder how I found the time to write every day, I am struck by how many posts I begin and never finish. They don’t seem weighty enough and they drift away like smoke. Perhaps I will revisit them and infuse them with meaning, but because I don’t have to, I don’t.

Sometimes, though, thoughts come together and what was smoke becomes a fire. While these connections may seem tenuous to an outsider, it seems worthwhile to try to give them substance. The word significant has been on my mind this week. I recently had several conversations with other teachers and much of our talk circled around the impossibility of ever feeling as though we are doing a good enough job.

Instead, our failures torment us in ways difficult for others—even some of our colleagues—to understand. “You care too much.” “Don’t take it personally.” “Forget about it and move on.” These and many other pieces of well-meaning advice echo in our conversations as we share our frustrations. We do care, we do take things personally, and we cannot forget about things and move on. We want to understand. We want to continue to give of ourselves while taking care of ourselves as well. We don’t want to become hardened to a world that needs the softness of our spirits. We want to provide hope and enthusiasm and caring. We want our actions to be significant in the lives of the learners with whom we work.

The significance of a man [or woman] is not in what s/he attains, but rather what s/he longs to attain.
• Kahlil Gibran

Some years ago, during a time when my colleagues and I who worked in a high school dropout prevention program were trying to justify—and provide significance for—the value of our program, one of my students brought in this excerpt from a speech, “Citizenship in a Republic,” that Theodore Roosevelt gave at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

I kept a copy of Roosevelt’s words on the wall next to my desk to remind me that it can be easy for those who are not doing the work—whatever it is—to criticize those who are. It can also be easy for those who are not doing the work to take for granted the efforts of those who are, to minimize the cost of sustaining enthusiasm for whatever it is that requires the commitment of the doer. Sustaining enthusiasm requires caring and personal involvement regardless of the task. Systems and institutions succeed because there are individuals committed to insuring that success.

I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.
• Pablo Casals

I don’t have any answers regarding ways to maintain personal enthusiasm for your work without losing yourself in the tasks. I only know that I cannot give all of myself to my work. I must be an artist. I must be a poet. These things are not separate from my life as an educator; instead, they are crucial elements of creating a wholeness of being that feeds my enthusiasm and my caring. I am significant to myself whether or not anything I do matters to anyone else.

Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the worlds, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairytale, by love.
• Ben Okri, Nigerian author

What is it that you do that imbues your life with significance? What do you—can you—do to maintain your hopefulness, enthusiasm, and caring whether or not the world seems to recognize their value?

If, after all, men [or women] cannot always make history have meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one.
• Albert Camus

Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm, you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, but with it you can accomplish miracles.
• Og Mandino

* I must rant briefly. I am well aware of the claim that writers once-upon-a-time used “he” to refer to everyone. I have, however, read enough history to know that many of them did not mean any such kind of inclusiveness and considered the ladies an unnecessary appendage when it came to matters of import, not to be considered in the world of manwork (keep cooking and cleaning and childbearing, and don’t worry your pretty little head about all the rest).

I remember quite clearly feeling disincluded/unincluded (yes, I realize that the opposite of included is excluded, but that doesn’t really say what I want and as I search for the other two words, I find that they’ve been used by others—just you wait and see—they shall some day be legitimized!) as a child when “he” was pronounous universalis. There are people who still argue for him, whining about awkwardness and such. Get over it. Or substitute she/her/women/etc. and see how you feel. “All women are created equal” doesn’t really make the guys feel included, now does it?


The Spirits That Visit Me In The Night Are The Reminders Of Work Undone, The Lists Of Tasks Yet To Be Completed, And The Host Of Possibilities Of Things I Could Accomplish If Only I Were Less Human

December 1, 2010

By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch. • Parker Palmer (2000), Let Your Life Speak

I’m currently teaching a course called Human(e) Relations, the “e” added by me as a reminder to all of us that in our dealings with others, it is important to be humane because we are all human and thus fallible and likely to disappoint even as we also deliver joy and delight. It is inevitable that few of us will be as practically perfect as Mary Poppins claimed to be.

It is three o’clock in the morning and I cannot sleep. Too many things that need my attention are lined up, waiting their turn. They are patient, but they do not go away. They wait. And I feel their weight. I close my eyes and hope that sleep will take me away for a few more hours, but soon I stare into the darkness, knowing that it will not, and I succumb to temptation, turn on the light, pick up my pen, and write my way into the day.

It’s the end of a quarter. Next week is finals week. Assessment tasks loom as does the necessity of preparing for a new quarter even as I finish with this one. My lists have lists and all my good intentions mock me, a chorus of inky voices reminding me of the undone, half-completed, unfinished realities of my life. No matter how much I do accomplish, it is never enough.

The life of an educator embodies the realities of “never enough.” No matter how much we do or how much we give of ourselves, it is never enough. There is always more that we could, should, truly believe we ought to do to enhance our students’ learning experiences. There is further research to be done. There are new technologies to embrace and integrate. There are additional effective methodologies to employ and additional worthwhile activities to design. There are always always always more connections to be made—real world and individual and interdisciplinary—that will help students engage with whatever it is that we are teaching. There is always more.

We do what we can.

We do more than we have energy for.

We plan to do better—and more—next time.

We hope.

As I watch the clock tick out the minutes before I must get ready for the morning’s work, I create a new list of things I hope to accomplish at quarter’s end: a book proposal to finish, articles to write, conference presentations to prepare, dusting and other mundane chores that get neglected because there is always something more interesting or pressing that I need to do, books to read, research to delve into, artmaking I’ve put off, cookies I’d like to bake just because I seldom do, friends I’d like to see, and I realize that although these things are all worthwhile and some of them are even likely to be relaxing, there is no place on my list to simply stop my headlong rush into life and relax.

I must relax. I must renew. I must remember to reconnect with myself and revive my spirit if I am to continue the work that is my vocation. So must we all.

Regardless of how or whether you celebrate any holiday at this time of the year, I hope you’ll give your self the gift of time. Your life is your gift to the world and it deserves some loving care. You do not have to be an educator to need–or heed–this advice.

No one has time; we have to make time. • James Rohn

For the sake of making a living we forget to live. • Margaret Fuller